So, eight years ago this past Sunday, December 18th, Don Shepherd got down on one knee on a freezing cold night, in front of hundreds of cheering tourists, underneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and said, among many other things: "Kelley, in the middle of the best city in the world and with all these people watching, at the biggest tree in the world and because you love Christmas so much, will you be my best friend forever and ever and marry me and be my wife? Please?" I screamed yes as the tears froze to my face, and he slid the engagement ring on my finger, right over my mittens. Then we called our family and friends from the city, told them everything, and sat in a nearby cafe drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows and looking across the table into the eyes of our future. But that future never came. Death took it away.
Death took a lot of things away. Like my extreme love of all things Christmas. It was my favorite day of the year, in my old life. I was that annoying person who started singing christmas songs in August, and putting up the lights and tree in October. I was giddy with excitement at the thought of making cards, wrapping gifts, eating mom's fried dough with cinnamon and sugar on Christmas morning while we opened our stockings, seeing the boyish look on my husband's face when I bought him a brand new guitar, and ducking side by side with him as we dodged snowballs coming from the enemy (my brother and his 2 year old son.) I loved Christmas so much, the theme for our fall wedding was "Christmas in October." And then, of course, there was that famous tree, smack in the middle of NYC ...
The first Christmas after Don's sudden death, my parents and I literally ran away from all things holiday and spent the night in a hotel at Foxwoods Casino. We played the slot machines and had a nice dinner and didnt talk of or mention that thing called Christmas, and to this day, I don't remember one single second of it. My heart and my brain and my soul could not handle even a small slice of Christmas that year. I was traumatized, in a fog, and living in the state called shock. I did not pass by the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree that year. I pretended it didnt exist, and I did my best to stay clear of that general area of the city. (not always easy.)
Last year during Christmas season, I did not go home to Massachusetts to spend the holiday with my family. I stayed in my NYC apartment, and made brunch for two friends. Then we went and saw the film version of "Les Miserables", the saddest movie on the planet, because there was something oddly appealing to me about sobbing uncontrollably over other people's misery and pain for a couple hours, rather than my own.
On one particular Monday last year, after leaving my weekly grief counseling session in the city, I found myself walking in the general direction of the Rockefeller Center Tree, and although everything inside me screamed "Dont do it!", and "You're not ready!", suddenly, there I was, practically running to get to that tree. Our tree. There was a bench by the base of the tree, and my body went limp as I plunged myself down on it, frozen into that space. My memory flashed back to the day that he proposed, and I felt anxiety and panic and fear take me over, and that tree was like a monster or an enemy I had to conquer, and it all became too much. I sat on that cold bench and just cried. I cried and cried and cried. And then, finally, I went home.
I wasn't ready. I was not ready for that much Christmas yet, but because I am so impatient with myself and my grieving and healing process, I tried to rush things and tried to BE ready, even though I wasn't. The tree engulfed me and enveloped me with pain and hurt - it destroyed me.
This year, on my third Christmas without my dear husband, I have started to let a little bit of Christmas back in, but just a little. A verse of a song, a widowed people Secret Santa, the watching of one of our favorite specials on TV: "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." But could I handle the tree? Our tree? Last year's viewing was so traumatic and awful, I really wasnt sure. Yet, something inside of me very much wanted to go back to that tree again, because something inside of me wants very much to one day love Christmas again. Really, truly love it again. So I did go back. Except this time, I did not go alone. This time, I was armed with my wonderful, very caring grief-counselor alongside me, taking care of my heart and making sure I felt safe and okay. As we approached the tree together, my heart pounded and my insides churned. The intense sadness of what once was - sat in each breathe of cold winter air. She looked at me and asked: "How are you feeling right now? Is this okay?"
"I'm realizing why this is so hard," I answered matter of factly. "It's because this tree represents the beginning. The beginning of our future, our marriage, our life together. And then we never got to have any of that. It was just gone, for no reason. And so when I look at that tree, all I see is the years and the kids and the family and the house and the jobs and the dreams and the life that we were robbed of - this tree is the beginning of all the things we never got to have. I dont know how to look at this tree, and just see the proposal and the love. I keep seeing what comes next, and then I feel sick inside."
She looked at me and said: "It's okay. You can't see those things yet. You're just not there yet. But you're here. " Yes. I am here. And this time, it didnt destroy me.